Fear, Loathing and TED Talks
Oh, I remember the incident far too clearly. I was about ten years old. My family was taking a road trip to Ocean City, Maryland when we stopped at a fast food restaurant for a quick bite. We got our food, took it to one of the tables outside, sat down, then realized we had no ketchup. When my parents asked me to return, alone, to ask the cashier for some, I refused. They asked again and again I refused, this time more adamantly. Perplexed as to why I’d be making such a fuss about this, their request grew into a demand. I burst into tears, at which point my sister, two years my junior, cheerfully proclaimed, “I’ll go!” and scurried away. (She’s now a public speaking coach.)
This is my earliest recollection of being fearful of the spotlight, fearful of occupying center stage, alone with all eyes upon me, my first memory of being terrified—like so many others—of public speaking. Sure, it was only asking for ketchup, but to me it felt like trying to perform an unrehearsed monologue to a packed house on Broadway. In fact, this one moment of my childhood left such an imprint on me that I managed to successfully avoid public speaking for the next twenty years, right up until this same sister asked me to write and recite an original poem at her wedding.
I was honored to have been asked and, intellectually, it seemed easy enough. After all, how hard could it be? Just stand at a podium and read from a sheet of paper. Piece of cake. At least that’s what I told myself. I honestly didn’t think it would be too challenging. Yet, lo and behold, once I arrived at the podium to deliver my poem at the ceremony, that sheet of paper trembled in my hands, my voice quaked through each word I had written, and—this was the worst part—my legs vibrated uncontrollably at the knees the whole time. It was worse than I ever could have anticipated and it made no sense to me. My mind had everything under control but my body, just like the ten-year-old boy I once was, wanted no part of what was being requested. “That settles it,” I declared to myself afterwards. “Never again. Public speaking is not for me.”
So, years later, how do I end up putting myself on stage, in front of an audience of more than 500 strangers (not to mention live streaming on the web) to give a TEDx Talk of all things?
[For anyone who is not familiar with TED/TEDx Talks, these are fairly brief, usually extremely intelligent and witty, talks given by people who have, as the TED folks describe it, “Ideas Worth Spreading”. You can enjoy hours upon hours of these talks on YouTube or Netflix, which I highly recommend.]
How exactly is it that someone with such a historical terror of public speaking actually ends up giving one of these talks? Well, I’ll tell you. It all started one otherwise uneventful afternoon during a session with a particular client who told me of her plans to apply to present at TEDxSanAntonio. (TEDx is a localized, smaller version of the larger TED stage.) She elaborated that she was actually planning on submitting two proposals, one for her own area of expertise and another about one of the ideas I had shared with her in counseling, because she felt it was just too important not to be shared. Then she added, “But, really, I think no one can present this idea better than you can, since it’s yours after all. Any chance you’d consider doing it?” And before fear could press the mute button on the remote control to my mouth, I responded with a blindly confident “Sure!”
I’ve always loved projects, especially creative ones. To me, applying to TEDx (which entailed submitting a 90-second film about my proposed topic) was just a quick fun-something-to-do, an out-of-the-norm way to spend my night after another spirited day at work. So, that very night, once home, I grabbed my camera and whipped up the following short film to accompany my application.
I emailed my application to the selection committee and, thereafter, daily hoped and prayed that it would be rejected. I realized I had applied on a whim, mainly as a bit of good-natured frivolity, and that the last thing that I really wanted was to actually be accepted. Please don’t make it. Please don’t make it. Please don’t make it.
After a few nervous weeks of waiting for a response, the call came from the event coordinator. “Mr. Fischer, I want you to know that we had a lot of applications this year, 219 to be precise. And there are only 12 spots for presenters. The committee really loved your video and wanted to be able to include you, but in the interest of creating the most diverse group of presenters possible, we just were not able to offer you spot.” Hallelujah!!!! I started doing emotional cartwheels.
“But,” She continued. “I do have some good news for you.” Uh-oh… “I know it’s not what you wanted, but we have selected you to be our one and only alternate this year. If anyone can’t perform, you’ll be given their spot.” Apologetically, she admitted that it is very rare that an alternate gets to speak, but it was still nonetheless important to prepare for the possibility and, this year, I was their guy for the job. Little did she know, of course, that no apology was required. I was thrilled not to be chosen, wholeheartedly relieved not to have to face my greatest fear and sufficiently flattered that they liked me and my video enough to grant me the distinction as the alternate. A small ego boost without having to actually go through with it? This was the perfect outcome!
Well, it was perfect, until, a few weeks later, one of the twelve original speakers dropped out and, just like that, I was on the bill. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap!
The thing about having a fear about public speaking is that, no matter how well you know your speech, and no matter how confident you are of the material itself, there’s part of you that lingers in a state of uncertainty, simply not knowing what the heck is going to happen when you actually get out there. You wonder if you’ll freeze up completely, forget your lines, make a fool out of yourself, or who knows what. An internal debate incessantly rages. I can’t do this; I can do this; I can’t do this. You vacillate constantly between internal morale-building and looking for an escape route, a graceful way to bow out, slink away, avoid the whole thing altogether. It’s a horrible form of self-torture, which never seems to abate. This is exactly how it was for me from the moment I learned that I was going to be a featured speaker until the moment I stepped onto stage.
Being a therapist, I know a thing or two about keeping anxiety in check, but no amount of self-coaching or breathing exercises was going to enable me to fully transform a lifetime of fearfulness. So there I was, back stage, pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, frantically trying to embed the lines of my speech into my memory as the last syllables of my introduction dwindled into nothingness, until time had run out; I’m called to the stage. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. I can’t believe I’m doing this.
I’ve never been skydiving but I imagine that the experience of first jumping out of an airplane is much like what it felt like to walk up the three steps to the TEDx stage. Heart-racing, mind-blank, an out-of-body experience, auto-pilot, a weird combination of action and paralysis simultaneously competing with one another. No choice now. I began. “My talk is all about a single word, but not just any word… a small, but dangerous word that I guarantee…”
Ah, I’d love to tell you that the rest went perfectly smoothly from there on out. In truth, around sentence number three—or maybe it was sentence two—my mind went utterly blank. Utterly. And I mean (enter the sound of static here), completely, that total nothingness in which time stands suspends and everything starts moving in slow-motion, like when you are in the midst of a serious car crash. My worst fears were being confirmed. I froze.
At this moment, which felt like an eternity, I remember looking down at the floor, my eyes staring blankly at the hashed pieces of blue electrical tape that marked the line I wasn’t supposed to cross to keep the overhead lights from casting dark shadows on my face. I stared at that tape for what seemed like minutes (but was actually just a few seconds) and then, out from the vacuous haze of white noise that filled the part of my mind where thoughts ordinarily reside, a voice in my head whispered three simple, tremendously tempting, words to me: Exit stage right. Exit stage right. Exit stage right.
Honestly, that’s what I heard, those three tiny words, admitting defeat, welcoming surrender, inviting me to throw in the towel and slink away, cutting my losses. I even briefly envisioned myself accepting the invitation, but then a force within me welled up from somewhere deep in my core with a silent but mighty roar of protest. No! I CAN do this. Just jump to the first thing you remember. And, in that instant, it was as if I grabbed myself by the scruff of the neck and pulled myself to safety, becoming both the rescuer and rescued. I continued my talk. “…This word is the single most destructive word in the entire English language and yet it so often goes unnoticed because, on the surface, it really doesn’t seem like much…”
Once I got off stage I went immediately to my wife for solace, thinking I had made an unredeemable embarrassment of myself, and the very first thing I said to her—half-jokingly—was, “Okay, I’m officially taking public speaking off my website.” True story.
But what’s so fascinating is that, not more than a few hours later, I couldn’t wait to do it again! After all, what I had just accomplished was pretty amazing. I confronted my greatest fear and, sure enough, I survived. I rose from the trial triumphant, alive, jazzed by the experience, like iron forged by the fire, stronger now, bolder now. Holy crap, that was actually kinda fun!
The moral of this story is this. Fear doesn’t have to prevent us from embracing the pathways that are set out before us. We can summon the courage to face fear, act despite it, and come out of the experience, inevitably, less fearful than we were when we entered it. There’s no solution to fear other than this. We grow past fear by confronting it head on, allowing ourselves to be twisted and wrought by the challenge of doing so, no matter how uncomfortable, or how humbling, it may be for us to do so. As a result, our fear diminishes, maybe a little, maybe a lot, but always to some degree and always for our betterment; we transform. Fear is normal and there’s nothing wrong with it. What matters is what we do with it. And, yes, public speaking is still on my website–and gladly so.
You can view my TEDx talk in its near entirety (with the brain-frozen 5 seconds thankfully edited out by the kind folks at TED), by clicking HERE.
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